Donald Trump, as a man and a presidential candidate, takes pride in having the best of everything: the best businesses, the best people working on his campaign, the best opinions. So the GOP nominee figured out long ago that having opposed the Iraq war before it even began, long before the wildly unpopular conflict would leave a half-million civilians dead and the Islamic State in its wake, is clairvoyant political gold.
There’s just one problem. Despite Trump’s repeated insistence, there simply isn’t evidence to back up the New York real estate mogul’s claims that he was strongly opposed to the war before the United States invaded Iraq.
The issue resurfaced in Monday night’s first general election presidential debate, when Trump interrupted moderator Lester Holt to again claim he’d been against the invasion from the beginning, eventually launching into a rant about private conversations he purportedly had with Fox News personality Sean Hannity.
After Holt tried to redirect Trump, saying, “You had supported the war in Iraq before the invasion,” Trump waited a beat or two before breaking in to say, “I did not support the war in Iraq.”
Trump went on to say the notion that he initially supported the invasion is “mainstream media nonsense” circulated by a Hillary Clinton-aligned press.
The wheels quickly came off as Trump launched into full-on defense mode. According to Trump’s telling of events:
When I did an interview with Howard Stern, very lightly, first time anyone has asked me that, I said lightly, I don’t know, maybe, who knows, essentially. I then did an interview with Neil Cavuto. We talked about the economy, it’s more important. I spoke to Sean Hannity, which everybody refuses to call Sean Hannity. I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox.
Trump went on to bemoan that “everyone,” namely reporters, “refuses to call Sean Hannity” for verification of his anti-war stance.
Unsurprisingly, the GOP nominee granted his first post-debate interview at Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island to Hannity, who recently appeared in a campaign video to consummate his long-simmering infatuation with Trump.
Trump brought up his earlier name-checking with Hannity, saying, “As you know, I used your name today, because you and I used to argue about the war before the war.”
“I saw that!” Hannity laughed. “I thought you forgot!”
Trump replied, somewhat ominously, “I don’t forget.” When Hannity asked how many times they debated the run-up to the March 2003 invasion, saying he argued in favor of the war while the businessman argued against, Trump agreed their conversations were “numerous.”
“And you told me I was wrong, in fairness, for those people that are asking me in the media, you did tell me over and over again I was wrong,” the Fox talking head responded.
Trump got in one last attempt to set the narrative straight:
You and I would argue, and it was respectful, and I understood where you were coming from, but I was against the war, I thought it would destabilize the Middle East.
I didn’t know it would be managed so badly, in all fairness, neither did you, but I really felt that it’s something that had to be discussed, because I was against the war in Iraq.
Neither party put a date to those talks, but Trump insisted they took place “before” the invasion.
As those purported conversations between Trump and Hannity were apparently private, there’s no way to verify that such weighty foreign policy debates went down between two of the Republican Party’s foremost intellectuals.
Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto also addressed his name-check from Trump on his live show after the debate. Cavuto played back clips of a Jan. 28, 2003 interview with Trump on “Your World,” claiming the tape proved Trump had reservations before the invasion.
Trump offers far from full-throated opposition to the invasion in that interview, however. Here’s the exchange, after Cavuto asked Trump if he would advise President George W. Bush to spend more time on Iraq or the economy:
I’m starting to think now that people are much more focused on the economy. They are getting a little bit tired of hearing we’re going in, we’re not going in, whatever happened to the days of Douglas MacArthur, he’d go and attack, he wouldn’t talk. It’s sort of like, either do it or don’t do it.
Later in that interview, which Cavuto said was one of “many” such spots Trump did with him and others before the war, Trump says:
He’s [Bush] either gotta do something or not do something, perhaps, because perhaps he shouldn’t be doing it yet, and perhaps we should be waiting for the United Nations. He is under a lot of pressure. I think he is doing a very good job but of course if you look at the polls a lot of people – the Iraqi situation is a problem and I think the economy is a bigger problem.
On Tuesday, Fox News published its own fact check asserting the Cavuto clip does indeed back up Trump’s claims to have opposed the war from the start. The un-bylined post also took umbrage that other fact-checking organizations continually rated the nominee’s claims on the issue false.
During the debate, Trump also pointed to a “major magazine” that was published in 2004 as proof that he was anti-war, saying “If you read this article, there was no doubt.” Trump was clearly referencing a story that ran in the August 2004 issue of Esquire, which he has erroneously cited as evidence of his Iraq stance so many times over the course of the 2016 race that the magazine finally added an editor’s note pointing out that the story does not support Trump’s claims.
In that Esquire interview, which was published more than a year after American troops rolled through the streets of Baghdad, Trump does speak out against the war:
Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we’re in. I would never have handled it that way. Does anybody really believe that Iraq is going to be a wonderful democracy where people are going to run down to the voting box and gently put in their ballot and the winner is happily going to step up to lead the country? C’mon.
The timing of those remarks came long after the war effort was underway, negating his narrative about being anti-war before the U.S. invasion.
In the post-debate spin room, Trump surrogates echoed their candidate’s insistence that he opposed the war before it began and pointed reporters to the Cavuto interview.
Asked by TPM about Trump’s purported conversations with Hannity, Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn said, “That’s up to Mr. Trump, these are conversations that he was having with another private individual.”
When reporters insisted that Trump did not oppose the war before it began, Epshteyn said that the GOP nominee had just been joking around in a much-cited Sept. 11, 2002 interview with shock jock radio host Howard Stern.
In that interview, which was first surfaced by BuzzFeed News, Stern directly asked Trump if he supported the Iraq invasion. The real estate mogul responded: “Yeah, I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly.”
But Epshteyn insisted that Trump’s remarks to Stern didn’t count, saying the GOP nominee was still a private citizen, that Stern’s program is about comedy and not politics, and that Trump saying he backed the invasion wasn’t a “determined comment.”
“As soon as he made a determined comment on it, he was absolutely against it,” he said of Trump.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who was also acting as a Trump surrogate after the debate, urged reporters to to back and “look at the facts” about Trump’s Iraq stance. Kellogg didn’t dispute Trump’s initial support for the invasion, but emphasized that as a New York senator, Clinton’s 2002 vote in favor of the war carried more weight.
“He was a private citizen, he was a businessman, he made comments about Iraq, she voted for the Iraq war, OK? She was a politician who voted for it,” Kellogg, who for five months oversaw U.S. efforts to reconstruct and govern Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, told TPM. “Her actions had consequences. His had news, hers had consequences of going in.”